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Mishnah Ohalot

Ohalot
 Chapter 7

אוהלות
פרק ז’

Commentary

m. 1

A solid monument (nefesh)

m. 6

One may not set aside a living being   (nefesh) for the sake of another living being (nefesh)

Ohalot Chapter 7 exemplifies Mishnah’s seeming disregard for order and structure. It opens by differentiating between the ways in which corpse defilement is transmitted by a solid monument, namely a solid enclosure of the corpse, and by a sealed tomb, namely a hollow enclosure. It continues with the following topics: how different parts of a tent, comprising several corners and angles, transmit corpse defilement; defilement of openings within a house due to the possibility that a corpse in the house might be carried out through them; defilement of a house in which part of a stillborn birth occurred, due to the assumption that the infant’s head emerged while still in the house; and – until which stage of birth is it permitted to abort the infant in order to save the mother’s life? It is difficult to find a connecting thread among these topics, and indeed the last topic doesn’t seem to belong in Ohalot at all, because it doesn’t deal with corpse defilement. Moreover, whereas mm. 1-3 deal topics central both to the chapter and to the tractate, namely the ways in which corpse impurity affect different enclosures (the “sealed tomb” the and “solid monument” of m. 1, the tent and the house of mm. 2-3), mm. 4-5 seem somewhat out of place, dealing with how to address doubts regarding which house was exposed to the defilement of a stillborn infant rather than.the ways in which different structures contract and transmit corpse defilement.

The unit least connected to the chapter is the last mishnah, m. 6, which would appear to be a textbook case of a mishnah whose connection to the others is not topical but rather an associative link through the opening line it shares with the previous mishnah: a woman who is having a difficult and dangerous birth. However the inclusio that links the first and last units of the chapter demonstrates that the chapter has been designed as a literary unit, not as an assemblage of disparate and loosely connected units. The rarity of the word “monument” (nefesh) in the Mishnah – it appears in one other place in Ohalot1 and in two further places in the Mishnah corpus2 – underscores its literary significance within our chapter. The word possesses two opposite meanings in its two appearances: at the beginning of the chapter it means a tomb monument and at the end of the chapter it indicates a live human being (its usual meaning). The inclusio is thus also a wordplay, which links the two poles of the chapter by means of a word that simultaneously suggests death and life. In order to understand the meaning of this wordplay/inclusio, let us examine a further remarkable wordplay, which greatly augments our understanding of why the “childbirth” unit, opening with m. 4, is included in our chapter:

A sealed tomb (qever satum)        m. 1

the womb opens (niftah haqever) m. 4

The surprising use by the Mishnah of the word qever in m. 4 to denote the womb creates a fascinating wordplay between the open qever (womb) in m. 4 and the sealed qever (tomb) of m. 1. Both the phrases, qever satum and qever sheniftah, are hapax legomena in the Mishnah3, strongly suggesting that the Mishnah redactor inserted the unit mm. 4-5 in this chapter because of the wordplay between these two unique phrases. Powerful suppport for this conclusion may be adduced from the surprising placement of m. 6 in this chapter, producing the inclusio of the word nefesh, as noted above.

These two striking wordplays in our chapter are particularly fascinating because they both point to a common conceptual nexus: womb/tomb (qever) and life/death (nefesh).   The conceptual link of womb/tomb passes the “coherence” test, since the idea is supported by both wordplays. It also passes the “correspondence” test, since the womb/tomb connection echoes throughout human cultural history from primitive religions through James Joyce and is found as well in biblical and talmudic passages4. A particularly interesting parallel to this idea in Jewish literature is found in the Second Temple sectarian work, the Temple Scroll (p. 50), which rules that a stillborn baby in the womb defiles like a corpse in a tomb. While the Mishnah certainly rejects the halakhic ruling of the Temple Scroll – the stillborn baby defiles only once the womb has opened – the literary structure of the chapter suggests that the Mishnah shares the conceptual underpinnings of the Temple Scroll’s ruling: a relationship between womb and tomb.

The womb and the tomb represent the two poles of human existence, the pre-existence of the fetus before entering the world of the living and the the post-existence of the corpse after departing from it. The Mishnah examines the relationship between these two poles by considering the cases of an open womb and a sealed tomb. So long as the womb is closed, the dead fetus does not defile and the live fetus is considered a sub-human being, whose life may be terminated to save the life of the mother. The opening of the womb brings the fetus into the world, so that the live fetus possesses a right to life equivalent to that of the mother and the dead fetus contaminates a house like any other corpse. Unlike the closed womb, the sealed tomb does not remove corpse impurity from the world, but it does change its nature. A solid monument (nefesh atumah), lacking an open space of a cubic handbreadth, is not considered a proper abode for a corpse, and the corpse continues to defile upwards and downwards as though it were not enhoused in a structure – in the language of the Mishnah the uncleanness “breaks forth and ascends, breaks forth and descends” (m. 1). Any structure possessing an open space of a cubic handbreadth is regarded as a proper abode, and henceforth the corpse is cut off from the world and is unable in and of itself to contaminate. The tomb itself is now regarded as a source of uncleanness and thus “he that touches it in any place (i.e. even from the sides, not only above and below the corpse) is unclean”5. Thus both the sealed womb and the sealed tomb cut the fetus/corpse off from the realm of terrestrial existence; the difference between them is that, while the tomb itself serves as a source of defilement for those who come in contact with it, the womb containing a fetal corpse is not thereby transformed into an independent source of uncleanness.

The literary and conceptual parallel in our chapter between womb and tomb is highly suggestive in terms of understanding rabbinic views regarding the relationship between life and death and the nature of corpse impurity, and readers are invited to ponder this fascinating existential question.


  • 1 1:6
  • 2 Eruvin 5:1, Sheqalim 2:5.
  • 3 Petihat Qever appears several times in Amoraic sources, such as Shabbat 21a, Niddah 21a, etc.
  • 4 Among biblical sources, see Job 1:21, 10:19; Psalms 5:10. For a rabbinic source, see the homily of R. Tebi in the name of R. Yoshiya in Berakhot 15b and Sanhedrin 92a. See further discussion in Walfish, Literary Phenomena in Mishnah and their Redactorial and Conceptual Meaning (Hebrew), M.A. Thesis, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 5754 (henceforth: M.A. Thesis), pp. 82f..
  • 5 This analysis of the difference between a solid monument and a sealed tomb is, to my mind, the simplest explanation of the Mishnah’s ruling, and is further supported by the conceptual parallel between womb and tomb, as explained in the text. For discussion of this and other possible readings of the Mishnah, see Walfish, M.A.Thesis, pp. 76-80, 85-87 especially footnotes 74, 116, 124.

מסכת אוהלות פרק ז

ז,א הטומאה בכותל, ומקומה טפח על טפח על רום טפח–כל העלייות שעל גבה, אפילו הן עשר–טמאות. הייתה עלייה אחת על גבי שני בתים–היא טמאה, וכל העלייות שעל גבה טהורות. כותל שנותי–טומאה בוקעת ועולה, בוקעת ויורדת. נפש אטומה–הנוגע בה מן הצדדין, טהור: מפני שהטומאה בוקעת ועולה, בוקעת ויורדת. אם היה מקום הטומאה טפח על טפח על רום טפח–הנוגע בה מכל מקום, טמא: מפני שהיא כקבר סתום. סמך לה סוכות, טמאות; רבי יהודה מטהר.

ז,ב כל שיפועי אוהלים, כאוהלים. אוהל שהוא שופע ויורד, וכלה עד כאצבע–טומאה באוהל, כלים שתחת השיפוע טמאין; טומאה תחת השיפוע, כלים שבאוהל טמאין. הטומאה מתוכו–הנוגע בו מתוכו, טמא טומאת שבעה; מאחוריו, טמא טומאת ערב. טומאה מאחוריו–הנוגע בו מאחוריו, טמא טומאת שבעה; מתוכו, טמא טומאת ערב. כחצי זית מתוכו, וכחצי זית מאחוריו–הנוגע בו בין מתוכו ובין מאחוריו, טמא טומאת ערב. מקצתו מרודד על הארץ–טומאה תחתיו, או על גביו–טומאה בוקעת ועולה, בוקעת ויורדת.

ז,ג אוהל שהוא נטוי בעלייה–מקצתו מרודד על הארובה שבין בית לעלייה–רבי יוסי אומר, מציל; רבי שמעון אומר, אינו מציל, עד שיהא נטוי כנטיית האוהל.

ז,ד [ג] המת בבית, ובו פתחים הרבה–כולן טמאין; נפתח אחד מהן–הוא טמא, וכולן טהורין. חישב להוציאו באחד מהן, או בחלון שהוא ארבעה על ארבעה טפחים–הציל על הפתחים. בית שמאי אומרין, והוא שחישב, עד שלא ימות המת; בית הלל אומרין, אף משמת. היה סתום ונמלך לפותחו–בית שמאי אומרין, כשיפתח ארבעה טפחים; ובית הלל אומרין, כשיתחיל. ומודים בפותח כתחילה, כשיפתח ארבעה טפחים.

ז,ה [ד] האישה שהיא מקשה לילד, והוציאוה מבית לבית–הראשון טמא בספק, והשני בוודאי. אמר רבי יהודה, אימתיי, בזמן שהיא ניטלת בגפיים; אבל אם הייתה מהלכת, הראשון טהור–שמשנפתח הקבר, אין פנאי להלך. אין לנפלים פתיחת קבר, עד שיעגילו ראש כפיקה.

ז,ו [ה] יצא הראשון מת, והשני חי–טהור; הראשון חי, והשני מת–טמא. רבי מאיר אומר, בשפיר אחד, טמא; בשני שפירין, טהור.

ז,ז [ו] האישה שהיא מקשה לילד–מחתכין את הוולד במעיה, ומוציאין אותו אברים אברים: מפני שחייה קודמין לחייו. יצא רובו–אין נוגעין בו, שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש.